Yoga for peacebuilding

Innovative researchers studied the relationship between practicing yoga and violence in a public housing community. Can practicing yoga change how violent societies are? A few years ago, an innovative study published in IAYT’s International Journal of Yoga Therapy asked this big question. The researchers examined both individuals’ understanding of their rage and aggression and expressions of violence in the community. They then offered a yoga program and revisited those same questions. Yoga, it turns out, can help people find and build peace.

The studied community was in a low-income government housing project in Colombia. Some of the residents were people displaced by armed conflict in the country, and many were gang members. Violence was part of daily life on many levels, including interpersonal violence and aggression within family units, particularly, the study notes, with parents hurting their children.

The researchers asked participants questions in focus groups before the yoga program was offered and then again after the 3-month yoga program ended. Yoga was offered twice a week for 90 minutes and included asana (movement), pranayama (breathing practices), yoga nidra (a type of guided relaxation known as “yogic sleep”), and antar mouna (inner silence meditation). The teacher emphasized slowing down and inner awareness more than the mechanics of any practice, and there was never any pressure to “improve.” Each person was encouraged to develop their own internal relationship to the yoga practices.

In the follow-up focus groups, all of the participants expressed that they believe that yoga helped to reduce violence in their community and supported their own well-being. They shared that the yoga sessions helped them to control their anger and think about the consequences of acting violently before doing so. One participant said,

In my house I have also changed a lot because I was very impulsive. I would get angry about nothing [and] I didn’t know how to hold myself back, but thanks to yoga I have learned how to channel that anger and control myself and breathe before getting angry, even including the bad moments that you sometimes have with your children. Not everything is hitting and so on, so [yoga] has helped me a lot in that sense.

According to the researchers,

[Y]oga may be an effective violence-reduction strategy because it enhances individuals’ physical and emotional well-being. Yoga practice may decrease antisocial and aggressive behaviors by helping program participants to reduce their perceived levels of stress, anger, and impulsiveness, and by promoting effective coping strategies, emotional regulation, and feelings of tranquility and peace.

Another study involving people in prison showed that those who practiced yoga became less aggressive toward others, felt less stress, and became more attentive to their surroundings and more thoughtful about their actions.

Yoga is an individual practice that can bring us closer to ourselves—and greatly benefit communities. Learning yoga and the awareness it facilitates can produce connections and even bonding as a shared experience. These studies show that yoga can be an effective practice for peacebuilding within ourselves AND within our communities.